The Problems with Punishments (Long Version)

The Problems with Punishments (Long Version)

Punishing children creates a number of problems, which, when taken together, can be both serious and counterproductive. In general, punishments are an invitation to trouble, and often carry with them significant, unintended, negative consequences. Punishments should therefore be avoided with all children, no matter their age. There are better ways than punishments for dealing with children’s unacceptable behavior. More about that later. First, let’s consider some of the problems with punishments.

1.   Punishments are often ineffective. Parents run out of things to take away. Children often reach a point where they just don’t care what punishment the parent imposes. Mountains of research over the  years conclusively demonstrate that positive consequences (rewards and appreciation) are far more effective than negative consequences (punishments) in influencing children to behave well. (This is true even with animals.) I have heard many, many parents in my classes say that punishments usually don’t deter anything. They just make things worse as the child becomes even more resistant or disobedient.

2.    Punishments are hurtful “power and control” tactics, and are really a form of bullying. In our culture the word “discipline” has come to mean “punishment.” The purpose of punishment is to inflict some kind of pain with the hope of both teaching a lesson and deterring future misbehavior. Unfortunately, it’s intended to teach children to behave properly by scaring them into submission. The real lesson that punishment teaches, then, is that when someone doesn’t do what you want, you try to hurt them and/or scare them into submission to your will. Parents are in many ways more powerful than children, and parents who punish use their power to “bully” the child into submission.

3.   Through punishments children learn to bully. Children learn what they experience and what their parents model.  Thus, punishments really teach them the wrong lesson: namely, “I’ll hurt you if you don’t give in to my will.” This is not only bullying, but also the perfect recipe for creating a bully. Ever wonder why bullying in schools is so widespread? Or why stronger siblings bully weaker ones? Perhaps it’s because parents routinely bully children with punishments and thus inadvertently teach children that it’s okay to hurt someone weaker than you in order to get them to bend to obey you. On the other hand, children raised by parents who use little punishment, but instead use more effective interpersonal skills in response to misbehavior, are not likely to bully weaker peers or siblings.

4.   Beyond bullying, children learn that violence is acceptable. American society is perhaps the most violent society in the world. Could it be that a major contributing factor is the way we raise our children, by using varying degrees of violent behavior from verbal bullying to physical abuse, to “beat them into submission”? I am referring here to verbal bullying and abuse as well as physical, and I’m calling all of it a form of violence against children. And it is completely unnecessary.

5.    Inflicting pain is not a loving act.  The end does not justify the means. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Rather than seeing a child’s misbehavior as an expression of his needs for autonomy and independence, or his need to vent anger, the parent who punishes sees only bad behavior and uses his/her power to inflict pain in an attempt to reduce or eradicate it. However, children are by definition immature, and their methods of getting their needs met or of expressing anger are likely to be self-centered, immature, and primitive. Isn’t this to be expected? Their misbehavior is often the result of a self-centered attitude that causes pain or injury to others–perhaps unintended, perhaps intended. In any event, children need to be taught to express themselves in loving ways that do not harm others. And parents need to be the ones who do the teaching.

6.    Punishments make parents the enemy, not the ally. In the eyes of the child, the parent is now the bad guy who, by inflicting pain, unwittingly invites from the child an anger response and a desire for “payback.” This has the effect of the parent inviting exactly what s/he does not want: greater defiance, more disobedience, and continued unacceptable behavior. The child learns to fight back by “pushing the parent’s buttons,” which is her way of using her own unrefined power to express anger and to bully the parent.

7.    Inflicting pain on children causes guilt reactions in parents. This is a powerful indicator that there is something inherently wrong with inflicting pain with punishments. Yet many Old School parenting experts and authors recommend it anyway, and expect parents to tolerate their guilt by going against what they instinctively know and feel. Inflicting pain is not a loving act, no matter how you cut it. I say, “Let your conscience be your guide.” If your behavior creates a guilt response in you, then you might just be doing the wrong thing, by your own standards. Your own conscience, your Higher Self, is telling you something important. Thank God you can feel it! A small percentage of sociopathic parents abuse and harm their children because they have no conscience and feel no guilt, and don’t know a better way. Don’t let Old School parenting experts talk you into acting like a sociopath.

8.    Punishments encourage children to get better at hiding their misbehaviors. I doubt very much that children who are treated with respect by their parents, and who are taught how to care about others by their parents, will turn to bullying younger, weaker, or more timid peers. To the contrary, children whose parents have the ability use to misbehaviors as occasions for teaching children better relationship skills will actually learn a better way.

9.   Parents punish because they don’t know a better way. In other words, when parents punish, they show their ignorance. Now, ignorance is not a bad thing, and I’m not blaming parents for being ignorant. It just means they haven’t learned something better. Parents raised by Old School, power-and-control parents, and taught by Old School power-and-control experts, quite naturally haven’t learned alternatives to Old School methods, even though those methods may not feel right or may be counterproductive. They need to learn a way of dealing with children’s misbehaviors that teaches children how they affect others and how to get their needs met in socially acceptable ways.

10.   Parents rationalize that punishments are not only necessary but beneficial. Many parents in my classes argue that punishments are good. Their own parents used them, and they turned out fine. They maintain that punishments did indeed deter their bad behavior, and they say they learned important life lessons from punishments. To that I say, “Are those methods working with your children?” They usually say “No.” Beyond this, many say they have not had a good relationship with their parents, evan as adults, due largely to the way they were treated. The lesson here is that as Old School, power and control methods, punishments may be effective in the short term, but they often produce long-term damage to the parent-child relationship. What parent would knowingly invite that?

11.   Punishments can relieve a child of guilt for doing wrong. In many cases punishments have what on the surface appears to be a short-term advantage: children often feel they deserve to be punished, after which they feel relieved. What could be wrong with that? While societal punishment after a crime may have merit as a deterrent with criminals who feel no remorse, it’s not that way with children in the family. A pattern of a) lack of self-control, b) guilt, c) punishment, and d) relief may inculcate a desire, based on fear, of not getting caught next time. But does it teach the child why what he did is wrong?

12.   Punishments do not exact from the child a commitment to do better next time. Punishment might relieve guilt, but where is the personal commitment to do better next time? Finding relief for guilt through punishment is a sorry substitute for a child learning empathy, respect, self-control, and effective relationship skills.

At the beginning of this section I mentioned that there are better ways than punishments for dealing with children’s unacceptable behavior. What are they? I referred several times to the answer: effective relationship skills. If parents really want to teach children appropriate behaviors and how to be caring, responsible, and cooperative, then teaching them to develop effective relationship skills is the way to do it.

So, what are these effective relationship skills? And how is a parent to teach them? In this book I am presenting parents with nine key relationship skills–three listening skills, three illustrating (speaking) skills, and three disciplining skills. Parents who already use them well naturally, or learn to use them by practicing them, will almost assuredly teach them to their children. Why? Because children learn to do what they see their parents doing.

The long and the short of it comes down to this: instead of rules and punishments (the Old School approach) I am proposing agreements and accountability (the New School approach). I’m arguing that parents who effectively use listening skills and illustrating skills can then effectively use discipline skills–one of which is holding the child accountable for misbehavior that breaks their own agreement with the parent.

So, take heart! You can stop using punishments, just as you can stop using other power and control tactics, like yelling. I always say that practicing techniques equals developing skills. By practicing the techniques presented in this book you will learn and also teach the relationship skills that make punishments unnecessary. And that learning and teaching is what discipline is all about.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

Learn more.    Table of Contents & Intro

Managing Child Behavior

Managing Child Behavior

The MANAGING CHILD BEHAVIOR section of this website contains posts on that most challenging aspect of parenting, dealing with children’s misbehaviors, or children who are “out of control.”

My New School approach to parenting is based on the idea that almost all parents believe they should be able to control their children’s behavior, when in fact that is totally impossible. And it’s a big mistake to try. Because it leads to power struggles and invites child defiance.

The Volcano Theory explains why parental control of child behavior is impossible, the responses children have to parental attempts at control, a rating system for assessing the severity of your child’s unacceptable behaviors, how you unwittingly encourage precisely the behaviors you DO NOT WANT, and the role of empathy, or the ability to relate to the child on an emotional level.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

     Learn more.    Buy Now.   Table of Contents & Intro

Feel Good, Do Good; Feel Bad, Do Bad

Feel Good, Do Good;
Feel Bad, Do Bad

We sometimes hear about people doing “random acts of kindness.” Like holding the door for strangers, plugging a stranger’s parking meter, etc. What motivates random acts of kindness?

On one hand, it might be a thought, such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” On the other hand, it might be that at the moment the person is just feeling good. Or it might be both. It could also be pre-meditated, or simply spontaneous, reflecting the person’s internal disposition or state of mind at the moment.

By the same token, if a person if feeling grumpy, or full of anger or self-pity, they are much less likely to do the random act of kindness. When we feel bad–impatient, angry, depressed, and the like–we are not only less inclined to do the good thing, but we are more inclined to do the bad thing, like barking at someone, criticizing someone, or ignoring an attention-getter.

This applies to children, too, of course, and perhaps even more so. They are so much more likely than we adults to spontaneously act their feeling state out and express their feeling verbally or non-verbally. Children are much less likely to be “reserved” or “controlled” in how they express their feeling of the moment. They are more primitive than adults in that way, but also genuine or authentic than a more self-conscious adult is likely to be.

So it is critically important for us as adults, and as parents, to be able and willing to quickly size up a situation in which our child is “acting out” (expressing) some negative feeling they might be having at the moment. When the four-year-old hits his little brother, or the ten-year-old steals $20 from his mother’s purse, or the teenager threatens to (or actually does) run away, it is important for the parent to assess and respond to what is motivating the behavior, and not just fly off the handle in reaction to the behavior itself. A knee-jerk reaction to bad behavior by a parent is not just missing the mark, it is also (and much worse) an invitation to the child to do more bad behavior. Why? Because the parent is ignoring or blowing off the pain and frustration the child is experiencing. Ironically, the parent now creates another problem, and more bad feelings, for the child by criticizing or attacking. In this way, showing the child a lack of empathy (i.e., not communicating some understanding of the child’s feeling or thinking state) is in a sense a rejection of the child. It’s not just the bad behavior the parent is rejecting (which is to be expected), but it’s also a rejection of the deeper, more important aspect of what makes us persons: the thoughts and feelings that motivate our behavior.

When children feel good, they are likely to do good. When they feel bad, they are more likely to do bad things. Conversely, when we see them doing something good, we can surmise that they may be feeling good, and when they do something bad, we can surmise that they may be feeling bad.

Understanding another person’s plight is called empathy. A loving, empathic response by the parent that expresses that understanding can make all the difference. For example, “Okay, honey, you must be feeling bad–angry, sad, afraid, jealous, etc.–right now. Is that right?” It communicates that the parent accepts the child’s internal distress. It invites the child to talk about what made them act badly. It’s the perfect way to start a dialogue that leads to a common understanding (and maybe even the child’s agreement) about how to handle those thoughts and feelings next time. It communicates respect and love, without approving unacceptable behavior. It shows the child that the parent cares and is willing to listen, and this strengthens the parent-child relationship.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

     Learn more.    Buy Now.   Table of Contents & Intro   

Empathy: Understanding the Child’s Point of View

Understanding the Child’s Point of View

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s plight, including his or her behavior and the motivations for a given act. It means being able to comprehend the circumstances in which a person acts, and both the intellectual reasons and the feelings (emotions) that help motivate a particular act.

Parental empathy means that the parent is “tuned in” to the way a child thinks and feels in a given circumstance, and that the parent accepts those thoughts and feelings as legitimate age-appropriate motivations for behavior, even if the parent disagrees with those reasons or doesn’t like the way the child feels. This empathic understanding can have a profound effect on how the parent reacts to the child. Let’s consider some examples. I’ll come back to them later.

Some Examples

Example #1. Let’s say a daughter misses her mother who is away on a business trip, and throws more tantrums than usual, and tells Dad she doesn’t like him, or that he never lets her do what she wants. It’s possible that the child’s crying and tantrums might be related to the fact that her mother is not around and she misses her. Empathy means that, if this is so, Dad will pick up on it and be inclined to let her know that he understands how much she misses mama instead of just blowing up at her.

Example #2. Children of separated or divorced parents often present many difficult behaviors that appear to have no obvious rational basis. Continue reading

Just Thoughts, Just Feelings

Just Thoughts, Just Feelings

Never take someone’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior personally.

Who hasn’t at one time or another had a thought like “I’ve been wronged.” Or “I’ve been mistreated”? Or “I’ve been hurt”? Or “I don’t deserve this”? Or “I’d like to punch him out”?

And who hasn’t at one time or another had the feeling of anger, pain, jealousy, envy, or fear?

Feelings seem to be always intimately connected with thoughts. Many feelings and their accompanying thoughts are quite pleasant. Many feelings and thoughts are quite unpleasant. But can it be said that any feelings, or any thoughts, are bad?

Children often say things we don’t want to hear, such as “I hate you!” or “I wish you were dead!” or “I wish I had a different mama!” These are verbalizations of thoughts, probably accompanied by feelings of anger, frustration, or even hatred. But can we rightly say these thoughts and feelings are bad? From a certain moral perspective I suppose it is natural to say, “Yes, these (and other) thoughts and feelings are indeed bad.”

But from a relationship perspective, it is not the thoughts or feelings themselves that are “bad,” but rather the expression of them in word or deed that can cause harm to others and damage to relationships. In other words “acting out” or “speaking out” ugly or nasty thoughts and feelings is where bad happens. Bad things can happen when Continue reading

Parent Power: The Issue of Control

Parent Power:
The Issue of Control

In 1991 Thomas Gordon published a wonderful book, Discipline That Works: Promoting Self-Discipline in Children. It’s full of wisdom and sound advice about the futility of parental power and control methods.

Twenty-one years earlier, 1970, he had published his excellent book, Parent Effectiveness Training. The only people who have been listening to him, apparently, are parents. (I have rarely seen him quoted or referred to by experts.) Thank goodness parents have been listening though! Many thousands have attended his parent effectiveness training workshops.He must be doing something right, even if very few experts quote him or appear to subscribe to his ideas.

Gordon clearly spells out the many problems associated with parental use of power and control methods to get children to behave. In this excerpt from PET, he talks about adolescents, but the point he is making is applicable to pre-teens and toddlers too.

Gordon says:

Continue reading

Unacceptable Child Behavior: the UCB Survey

Unacceptable Child Behavior:
the UCB Survey 

Unacceptable child behaviors are obviously a major challenge for parents, and rightly so. Parents usually know what’s best for their children, and rightfully demand the best from them. How parents demand the child’s best is another issue, and is dealt with in other places on this website.

It may be helpful for you as a parent to take a “snapshot” at this point in time of how badly, or unacceptably, your child is behaving day-in and day-out. You can use this “Uncacceptable Child Behavior Survey” both now and at a later point in time to measure whether your efforts at improving your parenting techniques are having a positive, desirable effect on your child’s behavior.

I typically offer this survey to participants in my parenting classes as a pre- and post-test at the beginning and end of each course. I figure that if my courses are achieving positive results for parents, those results should be observable in the improved behaviors of their children. Hundreds of parents have completed this pre- and post-test, and the results are encouraging. After the customary 4-session course (which covers only 3 weeks), the average reduction in unacceptable child behaviors is 20%. If parents are getting better at using the relationship skills I teach, it follows that their children are also getting better at relating to their parents cooperatively and demonstrating less unacceptable behaviors. This definitely appears to be the case for almost all parents.

To take a snapshot of your child’s unacceptable behaviors at the present time (and then at a later time), print this form and then rate the SEVERITY of your child’s unacceptable behaviors using this scale: 3 = Serious; 2 = medium; 1 = mild; 0 = not a problem. Total your score at the bottom and enter the date. If you rate more than one child, use the form for once for each child and be sure to enter the child’s name as well as your own at the bottom.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

     Learn more   Table of Contents & Intro

How Parents Invite Trouble

How Parents Invite Trouble

Note: I am indebted to Thomas Gordon, MD, for so clearly identifying in his wonderful book Parent Effectiveness Training the following (and other) forms of parental communication that cause problems with children. He calls them “the typical twelve.” I have modified a few of them, left some out, and added some below.

How Parents Invite Anger and Defensiveness in Children Without Even Knowing It.

The following common methods that parents instinctively use to confront unacceptable child behaviors are exactly what the parent should NOT do. These are invitations to trouble. They are likely to be felt as an assault by the child, which then compounds the frustration and anger the child might already be feeling.

These everyday forms of parental communication are “power and control tactics” aimed at making a child do something. They are almost always experienced as attacks by children. (They are also felt as attacks by adults, too, when adults are spoken to in these ways.) They are disrespectful ways of talking. If the child is already upset or frustrated,

Continue reading

The Delusion of Control

The Delusion of Control

This material is based on my Volcano Theory.

The English language plays tricks on us that we either don’t notice, or just live with. For example, we erroneously say, “The sun rises and sets.”

We do this with people too. On the internet advertisers talk about “driving traffic” to a specific website. This kind of talk is a delusion that the advertiser’s methods can somehow control the choices a searcher makes and “drive” him or her to the website.

We often delude ourselves into thinking a parent can or should be able to control a child’s behavior. Here’s why that’s impossible.

Continue reading

The Volcano Theory


What is it that motivates the unacceptable behavior we see in children? In any given situation, there may be many things that play into it. Still, there is one simple and really obvious explanation for all unacceptable child behavior–and indeed, for all behavior in all people at all times.

The Motivations for All Behavior

Think about your own reason for doing the last thing you did or said. Why did you do or say it? You might come up with any number of reasons, all of which are valid answers to the question. However, I propose that when you think about your reasons, there will be one inescapable conclusion. No matter what your various reasons are for doing or saying what you last did, we can classify all of them under one or both of two headings: 1) what you were thinking at the time, and/or 2) how you were feeling at the time.

I’m saying that no matter what you did or said, two minutes ago or two years ago, in any situation, your motivation can always be attributed to your thoughts and/or feelings at the moment. Although the specific thoughts you may have at any moment are infinite in variety, and your feelings (emotions) can be many and complex, the truth remains: you do what you do because of your thoughts and feelings at the moment you act.

This is true for all people, at all times, in all situations.

By “thoughts” I mean any cognitive or mental processes that take place upstairs, in the brain. This includes ideas, mental images, Continue reading